Identity crisis is the root of an unhappy Hong Kong

February 14, 2019 09:00
Hong Kong society is still struggling with its identity more than 20 years after reunification with China. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong is undeniably one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The jobless rate is a mere 2.8 percent, over half the population lives in government-subsidized flats, healthcare in government hospitals is heavily subsidized, and life expectancy in the city is the highest in the world.

Public transport is cheap compared to cities like New York and London. In addition, elderly people pay just HK$2 per ride. Education is free up to the secondary school level, and tertiary education is generously subsidized by the government.

We live in a free society with a political system that is not fully democratic but democratic enough to have an opposition in a legislature that is made up of directly and indirectly elected members. Our judiciary is independent and we have a free media.

All these factors should make Hong Kong people among the happiest in the world. Yet global surveys regularly show we are among the world’s most miserable people. Last year’s United Nations World Happiness Report showed Hong Kong dropping five places to 76th, lower than countries like Libya and Pakistan.

As usual, Nordic countries such as Finland, Norway, and Denmark were the world’s happiest. In Asia, Taiwan was ranked the happiest, with its position rising from 33 to 26. Singapore was ranked 34. A Gallup International poll last year also found Hong Kong to be the 7th unhappiest place in the world.

Why are Hong Kong people so unhappy when there is no abject poverty here, most people own one or two mobile phones, public holidays are plentiful, and many families can afford foreign domestic helpers and overseas holidays?

Why is it that people seemed happier in the past when many families lived in squatter huts or abysmal first-generation public housing, life expectancy was much shorter, public transport not as efficient, government healthcare not as good, and people had no right to vote?

Democracy advocates insist Beijing’s refusal to allow so-called genuine democracy is largely to blame for widespread discontentment in society. Others say the primary reason is unaffordable housing. Hong Kong has the world’s most expensive property sector, making it impossible for ordinary people to buy homes. Yet others pin the blame on unfairness in the society, which has one of the widest rich-poor gap in the world.

A single reason cannot by itself disillusion an entire society although a combination of unaffordable housing, an unfair society, and the lack of full democracy can do much to fuel unhappiness.

But I believe the root cause of Hong Kong’s unhappiness is lost hope caused by an identity crisis. The society is still struggling with its identity more than 20 years after reunification. "One country, two systems" was supposed to create a separate identity for Hong Kong.

The city would be part of China with a distinct way of life, character, and culture very different from that of the mainland. But as time passed, the line between one country and two systems began to blur.

Before reunification, the mainland lagged behind Hong Kong in development, wealth, and stature. This was still the case in the early years after reunification, which enabled Hong Kong to preserve its distinct identity. But China’s rapid rise since then changed the dynamics of one country, two systems.

Beijing became more assertive not only on the world stage but towards Hong Kong. Instead of sticking to the letter of one country, two systems, it blurred the public’s understanding of it with new definitions that one country is above two systems, there cannot be two systems without one country, and that the Basic Law is not Hong Kong’s mini-constitution but a part of China’s constitution.

Hong Kong’s leaders started touting the same mantra, even to the point of suggesting the wholesale use of Putonghua as the teaching language in schools.

China's new-found wealth not only enabled mainland property companies to compete with local property tycoons but also resulted in mainlanders buying homes here and tourists flooding Hong Kong. Over 50 million mainlanders came last year, changing the very face of Hong Kong.

The increased dynamics of mainland influence in Hong Kong caused a dramatic change in the city’s culture. The government has banned even peaceful discussion of independence, and mocking the national anthem will soon become illegal. Putonghua is now commonplace, as is mainland culture. Cantonese is dying a slow death.

Add to that Beijing's grand vision of a Greater Bay Area – which includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong – and the line between one country, two systems will be further blurred regardless of denials by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

The Greater Bay Area, with its promises of jobs and opportunities, should make Hong Kong people happy but surveys show most young Hong Kong people have no desire to move across the border. This shows a lack of identity. Hong Kong people are torn between being Hong Kong people and being Chinese.

Yes, high property prices, an unfair society which stifles upward mobility, and lack of democracy, can combine to cause unhappiness. But the real root of unhappiness is a lack of hope caused by an identity crisis. People cannot be happy if they lack hope. They cannot be happy if they don’t know who they are, what they want to be, where they are headed, and if their culture and way of life is dying a slow death.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.